Who needs a poll? – Opinion polls in a nutshell (#1/4)


Back in 1824 the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian
asked readers who they were going to vote for, and in an exceptionally close
race they correctly predicted that Andrew Jackson would be the next
President. This was the first known opinion poll and possibly the only
interesting thing the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian ever did. Since then,
opinion polls have been used by the media to fill up pages of newsprint and
hours of television and the politicians have used opinion polls to find out how
well they’re doing; who they need to target; even if it’s time to drop out of
the race. But how do you know if the poll is accurate? How do you know if you’ve
asked enough people for their opinions? It can help to think of the electorate
like a huge fat of soup. Taking an opinion poll is like sampling a spoonful
from the soup to see how the whole vat tastes. But the problem is the soup may
not be consistent. It may have lots of ingredients, so there’s a chance the
sample might not be representative of the whole vat. If you just take a bit from
the top you might assume the soup is mainly croutons. Or you might just get a
spoonful of carrot. Which is why it’s important to stir up your soup and get a
sample that includes all the ingredients in proportion, not just an isolated lump. For example some ingredients might be hard to spot because some groups of
voters tend to be reluctant to speak to you. But if you know that’s the case you
can try to adjust your results to take that into account. So if you do it right
quite a small sample of the electoral soup can tell you what the whole vat
will taste like. But more important than the size of the sample is the way you
choose it. The Americans may have invented opinion polls but they don’t
always get them right. In 1936 the U.S. Literary Digest polled 2.3 million
people and still got the election results wrong, because those polled were
all of one type: they were all readers of the Literary Digest, and that was about
as much use as a bowl full of croutons.

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Comments

  1. You wanna know who people want to win an election? ask a pollster. You wanna know who's going to win an election? Ask a bookie. Pollsters have weak incentive to make accurate predictions compared to bookies.

  2. I'm not going to lie there's so many useless polls these days because of all the stuff we have. We also have a bunch of garbage and labels that divide polls that ends up looking pretty stupid a lot. That's today for you.

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